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John Ross: Xi`s visit highlights China`s new Middle East role


By John Ross    Source:    Published: 2016-1-19


[By Jiao Haiyang/]


Xi Jinping`s visit to Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia this week takes China`s President to three of the Middle East`s most important states – a region which is simultaneously one of the world`s most important, with some of its greatest natural resources, but also one of the world`s most politically troubled. China`s foreign policy is significant for all aspects of the region as well as its global context.

Economically the convergence of interests between China and the Middle East is evident. China has overtaken the U.S. to become the world`s largest center of industrial production while the Middle East is the world`s largest energy producer. Simultaneously the U.S., traditionally the Middle East`s largest customer, is now aiming to use expensive fracking technology to achieve energy self-sufficiency while China is the world`s largest oil importer and the Middle East the world`s lowest cost oil producer. China and the Middle East`s common economic interests explain why the two are geographical anchors for China`s Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road – the two summarized as Belt and Road.

Iran is not an Arab country but the economic framework of China`s recently adopted Arab Policy Paper applies to the entire Middle East. Its center is a "1+2+3” cooperation pattern taking energy as the "core,” infrastructure construction and trade and investment facilitation as the two "wings,” and three high tech fields as areas for development.

But the Middle East cannot be analyzed purely from an economic perspective and other dimensions create wider aspects of Xi Jinping`s visit which are of key interest to many areas of the world.

The Middle East is the region in which errors of U.S. foreign policy have had the most catastrophic consequences. The U.S. 2003 Iraq invasion, and similar initiatives following it, initiated a process destabilizing the entire Middle East with consequences far beyond it.

Prior to the U.S. Iraq invasion, "jihadist” terrorist organizations had primarily been confined to Afghanistan, where they had been initially financed by the U.S. in a struggle against the USSR. In the Middle East rulers such as Iraq`s Hussein, Libya`s Gaddafi and Syria`s Assad, whatever their other features, were determined enemies of "jihadists” reducing them to a fringe and virtually powerless position.

The U.S. Iraq invasion totally altered this, leaving jihadist organizations, culminating in ISIS, in control of large areas of that country. The same process then unfolded in Libya following U.S. bombing. It was also developing in Syria prior to Russia`s recent military intervention on Assad`s side.

The newly strengthened jihadists, empowered by the U.S. destruction of governments which opposed them, then spread terrorism into Europe, symbolized by the Paris terrorist attacks, strengthened terrorist organizations through large areas of Africa, and propelled the refugee crisis in Europe. China was also touched, if less powerfully, with ISIS pledging support for separatists and terrorists in Xinjiang and separatists in Taiwan. U.S. allies in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf, were the main source of finance for such jihadist organizations as ISIS.

While in words opposing "jihadist” terrorists, in practice U.S. military interventions were the most internationally effective force strengthening them. Not only Middle Eastern citizens but those of Paris, Jakarta, Mali, Nigeria and other regions paid for U.S. foreign policy. However, Europe suffering serious terrorist threats and refugee crisis has led to a new desire to stabilize the Middle East. In this situation China`s foreign policy framework provided a potentially positive contrast to the results of U.S. foreign policy.

The destabilizing reliance of the U.S. on military interventions was a direct reflection of its relative economic decline – reflected in relative falls in U.S. foreign aid and financial resources. In contrast China, while not yet matching U.S. global military power, has taken over from the U.S. as the world`s financial superpower. By 2013, according to the latest international data, China`s annual gross domestic savings, the raw material of financial strength, were $4.8 trillion compared to the U.S.`s $2.7 trillion. China`s net savings, taking into account fixed capital consumption, were $3.0 trillion compared to the U.S.`s $0.4 trillion – an overwhelming Chinese advantage. This financial strength allows China to undertake projects such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and similar international initiatives. This creates a situation in which the main U.S. international advantage is military power while China`s main advantage is financial strength – a geopolitical situation which might be described as "U.S. bombs versus Chinese banks.”

The intersection of these realities with the Middle East is evident. "U.S. bombs” have demonstrably led to a strategic catastrophe. Restabilizing the Middle East will take many years after the disasters created by U.S. interventions and "China`s banks” are potentially of great use in achieving this.

Therefore, China has not only direct Middle Eastern economic concerns but a convergence of political interests with numerous international forces.

• Economic stabilization is in the interests of major Middle East powers – Egypt faces acute economic difficulties while Saudi Arabia and Iran`s room for economic manoeuvre is reduced by severe oil price falls.

• Europe hopes Middle East restabilization can lessen the refugee crisis and terrorist threat.

• Russia hopes greater Middle East stability can lessen the interrelated jihadist terrorist threats in the Caucasus and aid the position of long standing Russian allies in the Middle East such as Assad and increasingly Iran.

Numerous international forces therefore have a strong interest in China playing a more active role in the Middle East. Unlike Russia, China does not have direct military interests in the region – claims in the media that China would intervene militarily in the Middle East were fantasy. But China has financial resources unmatched by any other country.

China therefore cannot by itself stabilize the Middle East, and there is no indication it suffers from that illusion, but China is an indispensable part of a Middle East solution. Consequently, while Xi Jinping`s visit will have the economic bedrock of energy and Belt and Road, the Middle East`s political situation means a wide range of global forces will follow the visit with the greatest interest.


The author is a senior fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.


Key Words: Belt and Road   Middle East   role  

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